ST. LOUIS – Two or three times a week, Linda Baker drops by the Bowl Inn in her central Illinois hometown, hoping to strike it rich by plunking pennies and nickels into new video gaming machines.
Baker, the disabled Jacksonville woman in her 60s, has been lucky, figuring she's $75 to $100 ahead. Exactly how cash-strapped Illinois' fortunes shake out with the state's long-awaited gambling expansion remain to be seen, though the first numbers appear to illustrate the wagering option's popularity – at least for now.
A new Illinois Gaming Board report this week shows video gambling statewide brought in more than $346,000 last month, which is when the bulk of the machines went live. That's more than three years after lawmakers approved them to help fund a $31 billion push to fix schools, roads and bridges, despite strong opposition from gambling critics.
October's take came from nearly $18 million in wagers at 714 machines, placed in everywhere from truck stops to bowling alleys to veterans' halls. Local governments received nearly $70,000, according to the report.
State officials have had high revenue hopes for the new gaming, estimating when lawmakers first signed off on broadened gambling in 2009 that the machines – in addition to existing casinos and horse tracks – would raise $375 million a year. Updated projections haven't been released, and a message Tuesday with the state's gaming regulators wasn't returned.
As officials estimate that up to 75,000 machines could be installed statewide within a year, businesses such as Jacksonville's 60-year-old Bowl Inn appear to be welcoming the draw.
"They're performing real good," said David White, who manages the 12-lane bowling alley where five video gaming terminals were installed a month and a half ago. "I'm seeing people come in here that I haven't had here before."
His establishment's machines drew $484,000 in bets, the report showed, with the state getting some $7,200 and the municipality more than $1,400.
But what happens to that demand as the novelty of video gaming ebbs and more machines are fired up isn't clear.
"It's been pretty much an unknown, and it's still an unknown," shrugged White, who has tried to maintain his customers' interest by treating video-gaming players like they were at casinos, "making sure they have everything they need – like tea, coffee and water" – all on the house.
Baker relishes that, no longer having to make a 90-minute drive to St. Louis to find the nearest casino.
"I can stay here in town and play them now," putting in $5 worth of coins at a time, she said. "I don't know about anyone else, but I've won more than I've paid in. And if a machine's not playing very good, I just move to another."
In the Mississippi River city of Alton, Ill., Terry Strader's Riverbend Billiards may have a disadvantage in offering video gaming. Tucked squarely in the St. Louis-area casino market, Alton long has had a riverboat casino – the Alton Belle – virtually in the pool hall's backyard.
Yet the business' five machines still drew $205,000 in activity last month.
"We're pleased with the way it's been going, but we have no idea what to expect. It's just too early to tell," said Strader. He believes part of video gambling's allure at his pool hall is that players don't have to do it at the local casino, where they might have to deal with crowds and park far away.
"No one knows where it's going – if [demand now] is high or low. With anything new, you don't know in what part of the spectrum you'll be when the dust settles.
"Every little bit helps."